United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division
MERLE T. RUTLEDGE, JR., Plaintiff,
OFFICER TESSIER, And OFFICER PLAZA, Defendants.
DOUGLAS E. MILLER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Merle T. Rutledge, Jr., pro se, sued two Norfolk police officers following an investigatory stop of Rutledge's vehicle in the City of Norfolk. In this claim for damages and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Rutledge argues that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop and as a result violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable seizures. The officers, Joseph A. Plaza ("Plaza") and Laura L. Tessier ("Tessier") (collectively, "Defendants"), deny they violated Rutledge's rights in performing the stop which they initiated following a report that the vehicle Rutledge was driving had been stored and/or abandoned. The matter was previously before the Court on Rutledge's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 26) as to liability. The Court denied Rutledge's motion, noting that both officers submitted sworn statements disputing Rutledge's claims regarding the reasons for the stop. (ECF No. 36).
Relying on similar sworn statements, the officers have now moved for summary judgment in their favor. (ECF No. 40). After considering their sworn statements, Rutledge's sworn opposition, and reviewing the videotaped evidence of the stop, the Court finds no material fact in dispute and GRANTS the officers' Motion for Summary Judgment.
I. SUMMARY OF UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS
Rutledge and his passenger, Vernon Evans-El were stopped by Tessier and Plaza on January 6, 2013. According to Officer Plaza's affidavit, the stop resulted from an inquiry he made to the Virginia Criminal Information Network ("VCIN"). (Plaza Dec. ECF No. 41-2 at ¶ 5. Plaza attests that he noticed Rutledge's vehicle as a result of a peeling registration sticker on the license plate. Id. at ¶ 4 The peeling sticker caused Plaza to check VCIN for information on the vehicle's license plate number. Id . The VCIN check returned a "hit" stating that the vehicle was stored or impounded as a result of being abandoned. Based on the fact that VCIN reported the vehicle to be stored following abandonment, Plaza and Tessier initiated a traffic stop to investigate. Id. at ¶ 5.
On stopping the vehicle, Rutledge explained that it was owned by his mother and that they had paid the towing fee and other charges and retrieved the vehicle from Norfolk's impound lot. Plaza confirmed that the vehicle was titled in the name of Rutledge's mother and undertook to investigate and correct the VCIN error that had resulted in the stop. Id. at ¶¶ 7-11. The entire stop, including the period of time necessary to clear the erroneous VCIN entry, took approximately 20 minutes. (See id., Ex. B, Videotape of In-car recording at 17:05:20 - 17:25:18). At the conclusion of his investigation, Plaza advised Rutledge that he was free to go. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-16, Ex. B, Videotape at 17:25:18). Throughout the encounter Rutledge and his passenger had requested to speak to a supervisor, and as a result, a third officer, Sargent J. D. Pucket arrived and spoke with Rutledge for some time after the stop at Rutledge's request. (Plaza Dec. at ¶ 14; Tessier Dec, ECF No. 41-1 at ¶ 9).
Rutledge's Opposition to Summary Judgment depends almost entirely on his claim that Officers Plaza and Tessier lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop. His sworn opposition includes only a lengthy argument purporting to explain that his vehicle should not have been reported as stored or abandoned on the VCIN data base. (e.g. ECF No. 44 at 2-4). He also believes the stop resulted solely from the peeled registration sticker, which he claims Rutledge described to him on approaching his vehicle. (Complaint, ECF No. 18 at 1). Because Rutledge argues a peeling registration sticker is an insufficient basis to support the investigatory stop, he asks the Court to deny the officers' motion. (ECF No. 44 at 6). In addition, although Rutledge agrees that Officer Plaza advised him he was free to go, he claims that Plaza's partner, Officer Tessier, never advised him he could leave. For her part, Officer Tessier states, without dispute, that her separate inquiry related to the identity of the vehicle passenger, Evans-El, was completed before Officer Plaza resolved the erroneous VCIN record. (Tessier Dec, ECF No. 41-1 at ¶ 6). While Officer Tessier did not specifically reiterate her partner's clear statement that Rutledge was free to go, she can be heard on the videotape telling both occupants to "Have a great night" just before Officer Plaza responded, "yes" to Rutledge's question "Are we free to go?" (Plaza Dec, Ex. B, Videotape at 17:25:10).
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 requires the Court to grant a motion for summary judgment if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986). "A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.' A disputed fact presents a genuine issue if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass , 242 F.3d 179, 183 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).
The party seeking summary judgment has the initial burden of informing the Court of the basis of its motion and identifying materials in the record it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. , 477 U.S. at 322-25. When the moving party has met its burden to show that the evidence is insufficient to support the nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to present specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).
In considering a motion for summary judgment, "the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc. , 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000); see Anderson , 477 U.S. at 255. "[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson , 477 U.S. at 249.
Section 1983 "imposes liability on anyone who, under color of state law, deprives a person of any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.'" Blessing v. Freestone , 520 U.S. 329, 340 (1997) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). In order to obtain relief under § 1983, the plaintiff must assert the violation of a federal right, not merely some violation of law. Id . Here, Rutledge argues that Officers Plaza and Tessier deprived him of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Temporary detention of an automobile constitutes a "seizure" no matter how brief the duration or how limited the purpose. United States v. Branch , 537 F.3d 328, 335 (4th Cir. 2008). Thus, the officers' stop of Rutledge's vehicle must satisfy the Fourth Amendment's mandate that it be reasonable under the circumstances. Whren v. United States , 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996). An officer who stops and detains a person for investigative questioning... "must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion." Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968). While such a detention does not require probable cause, it does require something more than an "inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.'" United States v. Sprinkle , 106 F.3d 613, 617 (4th Cir. 1997) (quoting Terry , 392 U.S. at 27). Whether an officer possessed the requisite reasonable suspicion is determined by looking at the totality of the circumstances, and substantial deference is accorded to the experience and training of the officer involved. United States v. Perkins , 363 F.3d 317, 321 (4th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). The court must "take a commonsense and contextual approach to evaluating the legality of a Terry stop." Branch , 537 F.3d at 336. Reasonable suspicion is a "nontechnical conception[ ] that deal[s] with the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act." Ornelas v. United States , 517 U.S. 690, 695 (1996). It is a fluid concept that takes its substantive content from the particular context in which the standard is being assessed. Illinois v. Gates , 462 U.S. 213, 232 (1983).
Although Rutledge claims the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle, he has failed to present any evidence to dispute the officers' description of the basis for the stop. Both Officers Plaza and Tessier testified that the VCIN inquiry upon which the stop was based preceded the traffic stop. (Plaza Dec, ECF No. 41-2 at ¶ 5; Tessier Dec, ECF No. 41-1 at ¶ 3). In addition, the Defendants submitted a copy of the VCIN "hit" which appeared on the officers' computer screen reflecting the apparently incorrect report that Rutledge's vehicle was impounded as abandoned. (Plaza Dec, Ex. A, ECF No. 41-2, at4). The officers also produced sworn testimony from a third party corroborating the inquiries they made to clear the incorrect VCIN report, (Clark Dec, ECF No. 41-3, ¶¶ 4-6), and the videotaped recording of the stop confirms Officer Plaza's description of his efforts to investigate and resolve the error. (Plaza Dec, Ex. B, Videotape at 17:22:10). Because Rutledge's vehicle was listed on the VCIN database as impounded or stored, it was reasonable for the officers to stop to investigate. See United States v. Bumpers , 705 F.3d 168, 171 (4th Cir. 2013) ("The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment inquiry is ...